Columns Indian Scenario

Finding a good institution: One criterion and some examples

K VijayRaghavan

The numbers of new research and teaching institutions being born each year in India boggles even the Indian mind, which is much used to boggling and being boggled. Several new Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT), the now no-longer new Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISERs), the recently announced Innovation Universities, several Central Universities: the list is endless. Of course, why heralding the new, one should not forget the old. The once-famous Universities of the Presidencies of the Raj : Calcutta, Bombay and Madras. Then, Banares Hindu University, Aligarh Muslim University, Allahabad, Agra, Mysore, Baroda. Delhi etc. Not to forget the Indian Institute of Science, the many research institutions supported by Department of Science and Technology (DST), the Department of Biotechnology (DBT), the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE).

Here’s a question: What makes for a good institution? Note, that I didn’t ask what is a great Institution. In India, you may say that great Institution is one which had Bose, Saha, Radhakrishnan, Raman, Ramachandran or Bhabha once upon a time. But, a currently good institution? One answer is that its a place where a significant part of its faculty is very good (by some arbitrary measure). Starting from Kashmir and running down to Kanyakumari, many departments and institutes can be considered good, by this measure. Sadly, a closer, and more demanding, inspection suggests that most of these people can be classified as good despite the efforts of the institution rather than because of it. Is there, then, a simpler assay for determining what is a good institution, as distinct from a place where there are good faculty members? Here’s one assay I would like to throw out for debate: A good institution is where you would want to move to. Simple. So, shut your eyes and ask where would like to be, in India for starters, as a biologist today. Which place do you think can best nurture your science? Where can your talent be best supported by the environment so that you can excel? Here’s my current short list and my reasons. This is not in any order, but each choice is for a different reason. The new neuroscience programme at the Indian Institute of Science. The Institute, as its known, has been sometimes accused of not directly doing hugely for each new entrant, yet the vibrant diversity of its student population, the strength and proximity of top quality science and engineering departments, makes IISc a truly attractive intellectual destination. The neuroscience centre is particularly attractive because it has jumped into new directions of communicating with engineers and physicists. IISER Pune is next on my randomly ordered short-list of where I would like to go. A young and energetic faculty that listens to each other and to students make you feel that you can do science here. I am less familiar with IISER Mohali and Trivandrum and least familiar with Bhopal and Kolkota, but the if asked to leap, these are places I would likely leap into. Quite simply, the opportunity to shape the place is reminiscent of the way IIT-Kanpur was in the 1960s and 1970s: If the ISSER’s have half the energy of the old IIT‑K, and they may well have 10X, they are great places to go to. Talking about IIT-Kanpur, its recent resurgence is amazing and its biology and bioengineering department is truly attractive. Amongst research institutes’ the strengths in Physics, Mathematics and Computer Sciences makes the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) at Mumbai attractive, not to mention its location in paradise. TIFR’s new initiative at Hyderabad is another place to consider: again, the clean slate provides a great opportunity. And, right next door to where I work is the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre: If you want to combine biology and materials science in a beautiful campus, here’s the place for you.

I am sure that there are many more places that are attractive as institutions and my short-list is by not at all exhaustive. I have left out where I work, the NCBS, and its new neighbour, inStem because I’m already there. But, if they, any of these places I’ve discussed, and others whose residents tell you that they are happy where they are, give you a job, I would urge you to jump in. None of them have called me, so I am stuck where I am.